We sat down recently to chat with Patrick Brown, sound engineer and owner of Different Fur, a Mission District recording studio that has been in business for over 40 years.
Joining the Different Fur studio in 2004 as an intern, Brown has been an integral force in its revitalization. His leadership has been the key in transforming an outmoded, Mission District landmark into a veritable recording juggernaut that has attracted scores of new artists from San Francisco and around the globe while managing to maintain its charm.
We talked about his musical influences, his personal approach to sound engineering, changes in the recording industry, and his work with local artists.
What bands initially inspired you to want to enter the music industry? What music or genres did you listen to growing up?
I grew up initially listening to a lot of what my mom listened to … so that started out being The Beatles, Bobby Darin, and then Neil Young. For me it was especially Paul Simon, Billy Joel. I grew up on Long Island and at night I would listen to Z-100, so I was listening to late 80s and early 90s pop, stuff like Technotronic, Freestyle, Lisa Lisa, Cult Jam, the Ghostbusters Theme, Ray Hucker Junior—a lot of Bobby Brown; that was the thing.
But then on my own time between school and listening to the radio at night it was New York Freestyle, New Jack Swing, the beginning of Boyz II Men, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice.
Working with friends is what inspired me to get into recording especially—friends making beats and recording each other and not really knowing what we were doing and working on 4-tracks and making really bad songs.
What sound engineers do you admire or admired in the past? Whose work do you deem most worthy of praise or emulation?
I’m an actual fan of very few engineers, but I am constantly evaluating people’s work and learning from it. Some of my favorite engineers who I draw inspiration from are Russell Elevado, Tony Maserati and obviously guys like Tom Dowd. If anything, I draw inspiration more actively from producers and musicians—Prince, Morris Day, D’angelo, Biggie, the first N.E.R.D. record, the first Kenna record, Maggot Brain by Funkadelic.
I like the people who have challenged things, the records that challenged things and I aim to be that type of person.
What goes into the creation of a great record? What can a sound engineer do to help facilitate that process or help that process along?
I think that sound engineers are really devalued these days. I know a lot of people think they can do what we do, and I understand why. At the end of the day, if we’re really doing our job things are relatively seamless. You shouldn’t know that we’re playing psychological tricks on you.
What do you think about ProTools or other digital recording software versus traditional analog tape machines?
I think the whole conversation is like Starbucks versus Peet’s as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care which one I use. They each have their benefits, they each have their drawbacks. The reality is I’m going to get your record to sound the way I want it to regardless of which of those I use.
Wavves, who’ve you had here in the studio, made a big splash in 2009 via a LP he recorded using Garage Band software. How does recording in a studio rather than on your laptop change an album sonically?
There’s an aesthetic there; I think at the end of the day it’s not so much about what people are using as it is about how they’re using it—and certain things like the San Francisco lo-fi movement—there was some big article about how all those bands started out using the same TASCAM quarter inch reel to reel console deal. One person was using it and then recording the other bands so they all tended to have that sound and that became “the sound.” People were buying their own machines so they could get that sound too—and I think that’s great, I have no qualms about that whatsoever.
But I think it’s funny when the aesthetic becomes more important than the music. When the aesthetic becomes more important than the actual songs then you’re catching a phase as opposed to really trying to create something of your own.
How has your own personal approach to sound engineering evolved since you started at Different Fur 10 years ago?
My style has also sort of evolved and changed a little bit. You know, as you practice more you get away from the mechanics of just doing it … you start developing style and it’s a lot like the reason why people go to art school. You go to art school to learn the basics; once you learn the basics you practice them and once you know them and they’re inherent then you can twist them however you want.
Do you think the rise of local blogs like Yours Truly or the popularity of tastemakers such as Pitchfork and streaming music sites—has that revitalized the independent and underground music industry?
I think that the Internet, especially the fact that all of that’s based here, absolutely has helped San Francisco. It’s drawn creative people here; it’s taken the creative people that are already here and given them a platform. It absolutely creates a real scene here.
Any people you’ve worked with that haven’t gotten due recognition?
Right now, my favorite local MC is A-1. He just put out a mixtape, I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve heard. I’ve been working on this thing with Ash Reiter and I think that she’s really talented and I think if she hits her stride right she’ll do really well.
That’s a tough one, I feel like I do so much work with bands where we are trying to get them to their next place. We do so much work with bands where we really are trying to get them from where they are to the next step of where they want to be. I’m constantly thinking about getting people more attention for their music and its starting at the recording itself but also getting people who might be fans of them to their shows and telling them about the record or finding new ways to get the record out.
I just did a song with a new band named Should We Run that I really think will do something. I haven’t worked with them, but I’m a huge fan of Dirty Ghosts. And if I’m going to name a local band that needs more attention, it’s Grillade.
What are your top five favorite records of all time?
The Time – “What Time is It?”
Funkadelic – “Maggot Brain”
Weezer – “Blue Album”
Dan Auerbach – “Keep It Hid”
D’angelo – “Voodoo”
You recently celebrated Different Furs’ 43rd anniversary in existence last month—what’s in store for the half-century milestone?
Well, at the fifty year mark, hopefully I have a gold record. I’d like to be at a place where I don’t have to be rich, but comfortable and just keep working doing cool stuff.